Saturday, September 11, 2021

The BrainStorms Award



I was honored (and a little surprised) to be nominated for the BrainStorms Award by the Middle Age Fan Club blog.  It’s a great blog about life and teaching and poetry and football—well, what we call soccer on this side of the Atlantic.  It’s my first blog award nomination, so thank you Graham!

 

Rules

  1. Thank the person who nominated you
  2. Tag your post with #BrainStormsAward and follow https://brainsstorms.wordpress.com/ if you’re willing
  3. Display the BrainStorms Award logo
  4. Display the rules on your blog
  5. Talk a bit about your blog, why you started, what you write about and your goal for your blog
  6. Answer the five questions you’ve been asked
  7. Nominate five other amazing bloggers
  8. Ask them five questions

 

About my blog…

It all started with my 40th birthday.  As we all do with milestone birthdays, I lamented all the things I dreamed I would have done by the time I reached 40.  While some, like marriage and family, were beyond my control, I thought about never having visited another country.  Then Abbott announced they were sponsoring all six of the major marathon races, creating a special award if you ran all six.  Three of them—London, Berlin, and Toyko—would mean international travel.  It was too good to be true.  I decided that running those marathons and earning the medal would be the quest to get me through my 40s, and to hold myself accountable, I would blog about my journey.

The quest started well, with a finish in Chicago (my “home” marathon), then a surprise lottery entry into Berlin and an epic New York City race in November of 2019, all while documenting the changes inside myself as I ran and trained and traveled.  I went into 2020 thinking that I was in perfect position to complete my quest by my 50th birthday…until a corona virus escaped from China and turned the entire world upside down.

As races were cancelled and everything put on hold, writing became my way to cope with the anxiety and fear I felt trying to survive this dramatically changed world.   As the months wore on, my mental health continued to decline until I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder, or OCPD.  The blog that was started to keep me accountable with my marathon running had transformed into a blog to help me cope with my mental health in the midst of a raging global pandemic.

My goal for my blog at this point is to just be heard, be read, and grow a following.  The theme of my blog—exceptionalism, empathy, kindness, and acceptance—are in short supply these days, so I hope my ideas can grow and make this world a better place.

Answering Graham’s questions:

  1. Could you recommend a cheese to me and let me know why, please?  Just one?  Yikes.  (Looks north at the Wisconsin border.)  I’m going to say a tie between Munster and brick.  Munster is creamy with that fun orange casing that has this nice salty tang, and brick is just salty cheesy goodness.  Both are great when you’re melting or if you’re just eating cheese and crackers.

  2. What’s your favourite quote?  The Special Olympics motto:  Let me win.  But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.

  3. If you could have walk on music, you know for every time you enter a room or your workplace, what would it be? You can mix songs together if you want.  Eye of the Tiger.  It was my high school’s unofficial theme song, and I may or may not have fantasized about winning an election and entering a roomful of supporters while it played.

  4. Who would you get to play you in the film of your life?  Danica McKellar.  Not only do I look like her, but we both love math.

  5. What were your three favourite things about lockdown? (It’s Ok to say that there were good things about lockdown, by the way. We discovered a house with an entire miniature railway in their back garden that we’d have never known about had it not been for lockdown walks.)  I got into Twitter and discovered a wonderful, supportive, uplifting community.  Even though I haven’t traveled far from home all that much, I’ve become connected to people from all over the world.  Going through and watching the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe.  I had been so busy with my life that I completely missed these movies, and amazingly, all of the spoilers as well.  It was like watching them in the theatres.  Finally, getting to know my neighbors as I would walk around our subdivision, trying to get some solace from my house, and especially all the small children who now attend our local grade school.  I may have to sidewalk chalk some times tables next week….

Five Amazing Bloggers (click on the names to read their blogs):

 Rethink Entrepreneur    @Rethinkblogger

PS Conway    @ps_conway

Classic Cinema Plus    @TheeRealPastorJ

Weird Lifestyle    @LifestyleWeird

I only take pics    @mezmerize217

These are five fun, creative bloggers who constantly put out unique content.  I hope you enjoy them as well.

Five Questions:

  1. What makes you exceptional?
  2. Where is your best spot to brainstorm?
  3. Tell me about a great idea you had that ended up being a complete flop.
  4. What would you tell the teenagers of today?
  5. What was the most important lesson you learned from high (secondary) school?

Sunday, August 8, 2021

About Simone Biles and Mental Health

Finally, it’s the Olympic Games!  I remember getting so excited for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, watching the Opening Ceremonies while checking off the delegations on my world atlas.

That was five months after my mother sat us down to watch Torvill and Dean in Sarajevo, the only perfect Olympic ice dance performance in history.  Little did I know then that I would become an ice dancer myself, decades later.

It's not the Olympics, but definitely nerve-wracking!

We were glued to the television set those 16 days in the summer of 1984.  From Mary Lou Retton to Carl Lewis to the first women’s marathon, I loved all the Olympic sports we didn’t normally see on television, and like most kids, dreamed of being an Olympian.  Of course, it was pretty clear that I just didn’t have the athletic talent to get there, nor the dedication to do the same thing over and over and over again for years to achieve that dream.

Still, watching the Olympics became a regular tradition, and now having participated in both a Winter (figure skating) and Summer (marathon running) sport, it’s very special to feel a connection to the stories playing out on television.  I know what it’s like to face a panel of skating judges or trying to manage a hot, sunny race day.

This is what I will tell you, after two decades of athletic training:  it is HARD to be an Olympian.  You train day in and day out in relative obscurity to perform your best at one competition that only occurs once every four years. 

Or, if the world shuts down due to a global pandemic, five years.  2020 was a terrible year to be an elite athlete.  Facilities closed and locked down.  Competitions cancelled.  And when they announced that the Olympics would be postponed, many couldn’t turn to the one thing they’ve done for decades to soothe their mind—practicing their sport. 

It’s been a very long fifth year for these athletes, and watching these Games, it’s very clear it is a very different Olympics.  Parents are watching from home.  Audiences are made up of media and fellow athletes—at least, those who are still competing as they are sent home as soon as their events are finished.  For the athletes, who are used to competitions being a certain way, it must be discordant, disruptive, and distracting to not have a full arena of cheering crowds—or more importantly, a hug from Mom and Dad before their event.

Like so many others, I was shocked that Simone Biles withdrew from the ladies’ team final due to a mental health issue, but once I saw her vault, it completely made sense.  Even though she had made little mistakes at both the trials and at qualifying, that vault was just….wrong.  It was very clear her mind was in a very bad place, to the point of danger.  Thankfully, she was able to land on her feet instead of her head, go backstage to talk with the team doctor, and make a decision that kept her safe.

….and social media exploded.  Armchair experts, criticizing her decision, telling her that the Olympics are about “pushing through” challenges.  People who can’t do a cartwheel or somersault, never mind a double twisting double pike, thinking they know what’s best for an athlete who has spent the past five years mastering her sport for this very moment while juggling the responsibilities and expectations of federations and sponsors. 

It was too much, and her mind….broke, separating from her body to the point that she could no longer physically do her sport.  Had she broken her ankle or—gasp—been taken off the floor on a stretcher on her way to the ER, there would be outpourings of sympathy, but since she is physically fine, it didn’t make sense to people who honestly, don’t understand how mental health really works.

Well, it made perfect sense to me.  It seems so long ago when I was running negative splits through Central Park in the New York City Marathon.  Taking a break to heal after the marathon turned to hustling multiple jobs to keep my head above water to surviving a global pandemic.  Just like many who struggle with mental illnesses, the stress over furloughs and disease and isolation and “not normal” triggered my OCDP contamination fears to spiral out of control, to the point where making a plan to run with friends is dictated by the various anxieties and rules created by my illness. 

Physically, I’m fine, but it has become so much a fight in my head to go running that I can’t.  It’s not something I can think away or push through or get over myself, because that will trigger a full-blown, self-destructive panic attack.  Like Biles, I have to find a way back to the basics, back to figuring out a way out of this hole, because I still have three marathons to run, including Boston.

Cashed in some gift cards for a new toy...just working on that insane step goal right now.

However, it’s not just about sports.  I struggle getting out the door of the house on time because I just can’t get my hands correctly clean.  People suffering from depression literally cannot get out of bed in the morning, while anxiety sufferers can get trapped in their own worried thoughts.  So many people having to fight their heads, their thoughts, every day—just to be a functional, productive member of society.

We have all faced mental blocks.  Maybe it’s a task that you just can’t start—or can’t finish.  Maybe it’s overcoming a fear or anxiety.  Maybe it’s having a confrontation or difficult conversation.  We have the training, the skill set, the ability to do it, but our minds just scream, “no!”  When your mind is blocking you, even from doing something you love, there is no escape. 

And when that block is about twisting and flipping and trying to land on your feet, you have to withdraw from the Olympic Games.  Even though these athletes make it look so easy, it’s not. 

After watching Mary Lou Retton win the all-around gold medal in 1984, I asked for—and received—gymnastics lessons.  I realized very quickly that not only did I not have the strength to do the basics we were learning in our group lessons, but that I was scared to do simple skills like handstand roll downs and back walkovers.  Gymnastics is a dangerous sport, and after my first meet, I decided it wasn’t my thing, moving on to the much safer ballet and tap dancing.

(I never did ask for figure skating lessons because I knew they happened before school, and my mother struggled to get us to school on time as it was.  Ah, hindsight.)

It’s not a surprise that so many Olympians and professional athletes have supported Biles in her decision to withdraw from the Olympics.  Every top athlete lives with the pressure from the obligations they have to their sport, their federation, and their sponsors, never mind what they place on themselves to keep winning, to keep succeeding.  At that level, it’s not enough to be at their top physical condition.  They have to be mentally strong to overcome all the nerves that come with being on their sport’s greatest stage, and over the years, we’ve seen many talented athletes come up short as their minds struggle with the stress, stress that many sitting on their couches at home take for granted because it’s so invisible.  Until Simone Biles said, “I can’t.”

Simone Biles might come away from Toyko without a gold medal, but she has given us all a lesson in mental health. 

Monday, July 19, 2021

Masks and Vaccines and Paradigms, Oh My!

Last summer, I wrote about how we knew very little about the science of covid, so little that people who grew up learning that science is black and white…..were struggling with the continual changes in information.  It’s been a year, and because we can’t seem to adjust to the changes, this little bugger is still having such a huge influence in our lives:

  •  Masks.  I’ve been following the Johns Hopkins state tracker, and what has fascinated me, with all the fighting over masks and lockdowns, that the graphs tracking infections for every state do not reflect those battles.  Everyone spiked in November, from California to Texas to Florida, despite dramatic differences in philosophy and policy.  My hypothesis?  People were meeting in each other’s homes and not wearing masks, even those who were ardent about mask wearing in public.  There seemed to be a rationalization that private homes, friend “pods,” and smaller gatherings were “safer” than restaurants and grocery stores, but given the number of super-spreader events that started with small, private groups, that wasn’t true.  Unfortunately, it is a hypothesis that is difficult to test, so we may never know the truth.
Keeping my friend Katie (and other party guests, hi Steve) safe by masking up.
  • Vaccines.  While the mask data is mushy, the vaccine data is not.  As the more contagious Delta Variant gains hold in the US, there is a clear correlation between low vaccination rates and high infection rates.  I mean, when the infection rates are low in Chicago and spiking in rural Missouri, it’s plainly clear that vaccination is working.  Unfortunately, it’s hard to convince people who have not seen a single serious illness, whose lives have appeared to be disrupted for nothing, to take the risk of a new vaccine, and neither honey nor vinegar is persuading them to get vaccinated.
  • Paradigms.    The paradigms are still shifting all over the place.  So much of what we thought we knew last July, from the origin of the illness to what needed to be shut down, has changed, and we are still a very long way, probably years, of knowing what the truth about covid will be.  However, instead of riding the wave of paradigm shifts and adjusting to the changes, we’re doubling down in our insistence of being “right,” arguing and condescending instead of being patient and empathic.  I have news for you:  You are not right.  I am not right.  While we know more than we did a year ago, we are not at the point where anyone, even the scientists, are “right.” 

Just like the Cowardly Lion being afraid of lions and tigers and bears, we are allowing our fear to guide us.  Fear of the illness.  Fear of the vaccines.  Fear of financial ruin.  Fear of loss.  Fear of being wrong.  Fear of being attacked for our beliefs.  A fear that is closing our minds at a time when we need them more open than ever.

Last year, I asked you to treat each other with kindness and gentleness, but we need more than that now.  We need to be able to critically think, question what we’re being told, look through multiple sources of information.  We need to be okay with being wrong, and we need to stop judging others, even if they are 384 paradigm shifts behind.

Because we need more people to get vaccinated, so we don’t end up in some strange viral version of Survivor, where our bodies are the island and covid is the contestant….

The semester I fell in love with Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, I also read Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.  25 or so years later, we are seeing the two interact in real life, as the covid virus continues to mutate to ensure its survival.  The only way covid—or any virus—survives is to be able to infect hosts, and as immunity builds, it’s not a surprise that we keep hearing that each new variant is more contagious than its predecessors.   When a virus has trouble finding amenable host bodies, it has to mutate to make it easier to replicate—and infect—once it finds someone not immune to it.  Covid understands that its survival requires paradigm shifts.

Our survival requires paradigm shifts as well.  We need to be open to the changes, as well as being kind as so many people are still struggling with more changes in science than they can handle.  I mean, anyone who refuses to adapt to the current paradigm has a higher chance of getting sick at this point, so why be mean?  Covid will be nasty enough.  Maybe not this variant, but one that is much, much worse.

Doing my part to reduce mutations!

Please be well.  Be safe.  And for goodness sake, be kind.  I really don’t want to have to write a 2022 version.




Saturday, June 26, 2021

Missed Connections

We can finally see light at the end of the pandemic tunnel.  Things are opening back up, executive orders are lifting, vaccinations are rising, case rates are declining….

With the first weekends back to normalcy, it’s no wonder I’m seeing so many outdoor parties and gatherings as I go around my neighborhood.  People are craving connections after such a very disconnected 15 months.

At least, for all of you.  I’ve always felt that disconnected to other people.

As a young child, I would melt down while playing with the neighborhood children.  My mother would call me inside and send me to my room, where she would soon find me contentedly reading a book.  The frustration I faced, not having the language to express myself when everything around me just felt so disordered and wrong, would more often than not result in temper tantrums.

I stopped throwing tantrums decades ago, but the struggle to express myself remains.  My brain, my thoughts, my heart are just so off the beaten path that it’s hard to explain what is going through my head to other people.  My mother, in her attempts to help me, made me feel even more self-conscious about being “different” and “weird,” obnoxious and annoying.  It felt like the real me was just not acceptable to the world.

So like many people with mental illnesses, I have become a master of hiding my symptoms, wearing my face in the jar by the door, pushing my square peg through the round holes of society, afraid of what would happen if the world saw what was really inside of me….

OCDP is an illness about perfectionism and order and control.  I will let friendships languish because it’s not the perfect time or I can’t make the perfect communication or there was an awkward interaction.  Another symptom of OCPD is having a miserly attitude, which for me was compounded by a decade of working in government/nonprofit.  I’ve turned down invitations because they cost money that I was afraid to spend, or simply made me anxious about reciprocating generosity.  Don’t get me started about the people who want to help me declutter my home (another symptom of OCPD, that you struggle to get rid of things).  Speaking of long, involved processes…everything I do takes so much time that I’m often too overwhelmed with just getting through my day to pick up the phone and see if someone wants to grab a coffee.


Kim visiting me when I was on vacation near her.  It was the second year at that lake house, but I was so incapable of connecting with her the first year that I didn't tell anyone I was in Michigan until I got home.

Of course, I’m also pretty extroverted.  I love meeting new people, when it’s easy for me to be the happy, outgoing person most people see me as.  Just a glance at my social media feeds tells you I have friends and a fun social life, figure skating and running marathons and doing all sorts of different things.  While I’m able to make initial connections and make some moments, I end up putting too much distance to create that true bond of close, long-term friendship.

I don’t have those lifelong friendships with classmates or sorority sisters or former work colleagues.  I’ve walked away from people I’ve wanted to get to know better because I’ve felt intimidated--or just plain awkward.  I’ve moved from friend group to friend group, none ever feeling quite like my “tribe.”


Bloomington, 2010.  Probably one of my favorite years as a figure skater, and I was staying with some of my favorite people in skating.  The next year ended up being one of my worst, as the combination of staying in a house for 10 days, changing jobs, and a horrible competition ended up with me having the meltdown of meltdowns.  Things were never the same since.

No wonder that self-love technique of imagining yourself as a friend doesn’t work for me at all.  I usually end up screaming at myself in the bathroom mirror about what a friendless loser I am and how much I suck.  Now, I realize I’m not a friendless loser, but my friendships are usually tied to activities and organized gatherings and social media, where I can control my involvement, instead of the more intimate coffees and bottles of wine and phone calls—or the shared fun of dinner parties, nights out, and random adventures.  The experiences that create connections.

While it’s a safe existence, free of hurt and rejection, difficulties and disappointment, it’s also been a lonely one.  Dinners and movies and sojurns into the city are done solo, as I struggle to invite someone to join me.   Meanwhile, I live vicariously through others’ social media posts, looking in on everyone else.  When I actually am around people, I often feel like I’m in a foreign country, in translation mode, speaking a different language. 

Actually, last year really wasn’t all that different from my 2002 or 2014 or 2018. 

Except that I finally know why.  OCPD.  And in the process of restructuring my life around my OCPD, I’ve learned that my new life is more dependent on connections than ever before.  I’ve made tutoring my main career, so I have to generate the referrals necessary to make a living from it.  I’m writing a blog about my experiences in mental health that I want people to read, so we can make the world a better place.  I need to create a list of professionals, from my doctor to my auto mechanic, who are willing to listen to my needs and accommodate them, even if they don’t understand.  Most important, though, is that I need to stop trying to find a tribe to join and create my own, one who understands and supports and cheerleads me through this process.


My dear friend Diana, one of the people who has been there for me through the roller coaster of the past few years.  
Definitely a member of the tribe.

The timing is perfect, as we are all re-emerging, re-entering, re-connecting after months of isolation and disconnection.  While some people will be able to pick up as if the last 15 months never happened, many of us have been changed by it.  We all need to be kind and gentle as we come back to the post-pandemic world, and I hope more people check in on those who tend to self-isolate, pandemic or not. 

I just know that I can no longer live with a mess of missed connections any longer.

 

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Words Hurt as Much as Hands

 

“We should have never let you go to Lawrence.  You weren’t ready for college.”

I stopped, stunned.  “What did you say, Mom?”

“We watched the video from Colorado.  You were clearly miserable and not ready to go off to college. You should have stayed home and gone to MCC.”

Ah, Colorado.  The family vacation we took the summer after I graduated high school.  Since my school started much later than everyone else, my parents planned the trip in August….when all my friends were leaving for school.  Cue moody, miserable teenager.

This conversation, though, was many years later, when I was in my early 30s, and my parents were going through old photos and videos, one piece of the eventual sale of my childhood home.  It hurt to hear her discount all the hard work, all the scrimping and saving, all the effort we had taken as a family for me to get into—and afford—a rigorous, top-tier school.    

Today is May 1st, decision day, and that memory always creeps in my brain as I think about my students and their college choices.  Spring has bloomed with college decisions and Mother’s Day….and blue children all over Lake County to raise awareness of child abuse. 

 

A Blue Kid of Lake County to promote Child Abuse Awareness

It all reminds me of my rocky, difficult relationship with my mother.

“Look at those girls,” my mom is saying to junior high me.  “Do you see them laughing at you?”

“No, where?”  I glanced around and saw two girls I didn’t recognize, whispering and giggling.

Maybe they were laughing at me, but they didn’t cast an impression on me.  I was a bit of a contrarian as a junior high kid, the type of kid who had a clear sense of who she was and where she was going.  I had zero interest in hair and makeup and clothes and celebrities, but loved science and math and Anne MacCaffrey and old movies and The Weather Channel.  I was looking forward to leaving the insular, small universe of my elementary/junior high (yes, one building for K-8) for the larger suburban high school, where there was a chance there were more kids like me, or even that buzzer thing they did on Head of the Class.  (There was.  We won conference my senior year, and I was named to the all-conference team.  I hope that plaque is still hanging in the hallway.)

My mother, however, noticed every single glance, every single giggle, every single whisper, and made sure that I was given the feedback.

The actual teasing and whispers and drama and gossip wasn’t so bad; we were all uncomfortable and struggling.  It was having to come home and have to rehash it in detail that had me terrified every day.  Most of my memories of eighth grade were standing at the foot of my parents’ bed, going through my day with my mom, who was analyzing everything I did and said, trying to suggest how I could have handled it better.  Hours spent staring at the bed, the wallpaper, trying to figure out how to make the conversation stop.

But the conversation never really stopped.  Her voice whispers through me at every social gathering, noticing every look or stare or awkward moment, her post-mortems in my head on the way home.  I look in the mirror, tired, never able to escape the lecture. 

As children, we believe our parents are right.  They are acting in our best interests, and their unconditional love means they would never do harm.  They love us so much they would kill for us, right?  Just like we see in those PBS documentaries.

“Trying to get your ideas on paper is like pulling teeth.  What are you trying to say here?”  A mother in graduate school, helping her daughter get through World Literature in high school.  I swear, those Greek and Latin vocabulary lessons saved me so many times...

“What I wrote down.”

“Erin, it doesn’t make any sense.  Here, you should rewrite it this way.”

Despite working on her masters’ degree in social work, my mother was always willing to help me.  While science and math came easily to me, writing did not.  I loved to read, but I saw a very different world in the literature we were reading—and my need to put the words perfectly on paper impeded my ability to communicate those thoughts.

As we’ve learned this year, parents aren’t always the best person to teach their children, and this was a textbook example.  She didn’t have the training to help me in a way that would encourage me, and as someone where every other aspect of school came easily, the discouragement factor was high.  Every session eroded my confidence in my writing skills, to the point where I didn’t think I could complete an assignment without her help.

It took four tough, grueling, frustrating years at Lawrence before I believed I was an adequate writer.  Four years of writing and editing and essay tests and term papers.  I had chosen a school that required formal, written lab reports and math assignments.

Four years of doing The Grind.

While college isn’t this happy, idyllic memory, I am so grateful for the growth and strength it gave me.  A lot of who I am today came from those difficult times.  Perhaps that’s why my mother’s comments about those four years—and wishing she had kept me home—stung so much, even ten years after graduation. 

*****

“We’d go to teacher conferences, and they kept asking me, ‘why is she so afraid of you?’ I didn’t know what to say, because that’s not how you behave at home.”

Her tone was part frustration, part exasperation, and part accusatory.  My father was on the school board, while my mother was active in the PTA.  In a small school where many of my teachers were also parents, they knew my family, my home, and there were no red flags of abuse.  It didn’t make sense.

To her.  Here I was, in my thirties, and it was the first inkling that maybe her way of parenting wasn’t healthy or right for me.  When I started therapy and unpacking my childhood, I learned that her behavior had crossed the line towards abuse.

What we truly don’t understand until we become adults is that our parents are the products of their own childhoods, their own brokenness from their own parents.  Many abusers were actually victims of abuse, never having dealt with their own trauma, and children are very good at testing their parent’s patience.  Parents who don’t have the practice and skills to handle such difficult situations…make mistakes. 

I will never say that I was an easy child.  The double-whammy of high IQ and undiagnosed mental illness is tough for even the best of parents.  My mother was a fixer, needing to correct everything around her, while I was this mess of a brain that didn’t stop and couldn’t calm.  It was a perfect storm of conflict, the child who didn’t have the language to express the fireworks in her brain and the mother whose brain was so full of her own issues she didn’t have the skills to meet me at my level. 

Instead, she tore me down verbally to gain the upper hand.  As long as she held my self-esteem, I was controllable.  Easy to parent.

We see child abuse as fists and anger, torture and neglect, but we don’t think about the words.  Words of misunderstanding and frustration, words that break confidence and trust.  It’s words that make a daughter who worked on three patents in nanocomposite technology, who got a job with the US House of Representatives, who medaled at a national figure skating championships, who finished nine marathons—believe she is the black sheep of the family, too much a contrarian, a monster, a dictator to be included.

Words matter.  Understanding matters.  Parenting is a hard job, one that, knowing what I know now, is completely beyond my abilities.  Good thing I never did settle down and have children.  The cycle is broken.  Healing is happening, and maybe some day I’ll be able to look at my mother and not feel her disappointment in me.

Not hear her words in my head.